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Unpacking Tony Bennett’s box of offensive tricks

Evaluating how the Wahoo coaching staff has schemed its way to further offensive efficiency this season.

Virginia v Syracuse Photo by Bryan Bennett /Getty Images

Similar to two seasons ago, the Virginia Cavaliers— now 17-3 (9-2 ACC), with a Top 25 offense — has turned away from Blocker Mover and leaned on Inside Triangle/Motion (Middle Third) as its base offense.

That shift started around the mid-December loss in Charlottesville to Houston. Now, this year’s squad can’t replicate the same shooting synergy as Trey Murphy III, Sam Hauser and Jay Huff — one of the all-time great trios of tall shooters in college hoops. Still, Virginia discovered its flow on offense with Inside Triangle, more lineup flexibility (compared to last season) and contributions from two rookies.

(This shift has also cost Kadin Shedrick, a talented back-line help defender playing time, due to his lack of shooting gravity and playmaking craft. The foul trouble and positioning concerns on defense haven’t helped his case, either.)

Outside of the base offense, Bennett and his staff have reaffirmed their status as one of the better after-timeout and situational offenses in the ACC. Bennett may be known for Blocker Mover and Inside Triangle offenses, but for years now his teams have run great quick-hitting actions out of the Box set: two players start the possession at the elbows and two at the baseline boxes.

Virginia Box Set At Pittsburgh
Virginia’s Box Set Offense

From this setup, Virginia can flow quickly into a variety of actions that target the rim (lobs) or off-screen shooters. Let’s take a look at what the Cavaliers have been up to out of their Box set this season.

Box Hammer Throwback

This after-timeout (ATO) set vs. Boston College starts with Virginia in the Box. Reece Beekman clears to the left side of the floor off of a flare screen from Shedrick. Meanwhile, Armaan Franklin cuts from left box to the right wing. As Beekman exits the flare, he immediately drives left. While this happens, Franklin cuts down to the right corner — and back into Beekman’s vision — off a Hammer screen (a weak-side flare screen designed to create a corner three-point attempt) from Ryan Dunn. Beekman’s pass is low, but Franklin (40.4 three-point percentage) makes a tough catch and drills the three.

From earlier in January vs. Virginia Tech, here’s the same Box Hammer action: Beekman comes off Jayden Gardner’s flare screen, Isaac McKneely clears to the right wing and then comes back down off of the Hammer screen from Ben Vander Plas. However, MJ Collins of Virginia Tech slides and doesn’t allow Beekman to turn the corner. Instead, Beekman pivots to the play’s secondary action: a Throwback screen for Kihei Clark.

Keep an eye on Gardner. Initially, it looks like he’ll set a chase ball screen for Beekman; however, he flips his direction and sets the Throwback for Clark (39.7% from three on the year) who catches and gets off a clean three pointer.

Isaac McKneely: a Guy’s Guy — Box Side Elevator

McKneely is starting to see more of a regular role (just under 23 minutes per game since December). He’s guilty of the occasional defensive breakdown, and opponents will look to challenge him 1-on-1. McKneely at least tries on that side of the floor and has some solid background knowledge of the Virginia defense, plus he has decent size for a guard. On offense, though, his talents are more obvious.

Currently, McKneely is used in a somewhat limited offensive role: shoot threes and keep the ball moving. Along with Vander Plas and Franklin, McKneely is one of three UVA players averaging at least 10 three-point attempts per 100 possessions — nearly 76 percent of his total FGA are over the three-point variety.

While there are flashes of him playing on the ball, McKneely has only 15 free throw attempts on the season, drawing only 1.9 fouls per 40 minutes, according to KenPom. That, by the way, is fine. With Beekman and Clark, Virginia has two experienced, skilled on-ball creators, plus Vander Plas brings offensive initiation from the front-court with post-ups and skip passes.

McKneely isn’t just a standstill shooter, though. He shoots with pace and accuracy coming off of hard movement, which makes him an ideal fit for Virginia’s system. A shooter like McKneely can play anywhere; every team could use a long-range bomber to loosen up opposing defenses. With Bennett’s Blocker Mover and Inside Motion schemes, though, there’s a premium on guards and wings that can score after running off of screening actions.

In recent weeks, it’s been interesting — and not all that surprising — to see Bennett start to utilize his next big-time movement shooter more frequently. In fact, McKneely’s usage is starting to look a lot like that of Kyle Guy’s from a few seasons ago. The comparison may seem trite. I’m certainly not the first to draw the comp. However, there’s a little more to the analogy when Bennett is literally calling plays for McKneely that are identical to how he deployed Guy.

From the Wake Forest game: Virginia emerges in a Box set, with Vander Plas and Ryan Dunn stacked on the right side of the lane. McKneely sprints down like he may set a pin down for Franklin, but instead he races out to his right, as BVP and Dunn close the elevator doors on Daivien Williamson.

(Virginia ran this exact same look at Pittsburgh, too, designed for McKneely on an ATO play, but it resulted in a turnover due to an illegal screen from Shedrick.)

Look familiar? Well, here’s the same exact play for a Kyle Guy three at West Virginia in the 2017-18 season.

And again, here’s Box Side Elevator for Guy at Duke in 2019, with Cam Reddish getting caught in the doors.

One of the counters Bennett/UVA will run off of this initial concept is to emerge in Box formation, look set up to run that side Elevator action — only to have the shooter run to the opposite side, away from the Elevator doors, and off a single exit screen.

It’ll be interesting to see if Virginia trots this counter out soon with McKneely. According to CBB Analytics, Virginia is +69 in 419 minutes with McKneely on the floor this season. During those minutes, Virginia’s three-point attempt rate jumps to 44.2 percent.

Currently, McKneely is one of only seven high-major freshmen shooting 42.0% from three with at least 50 three point attempts. He’s joined here by some of the best prospects and young shooters in the country: Brandon Miller, Gradey Dick, Brice Sensabaugh and Braden Smith.

Box Throwbacks

The Elevator and Throwback screens are key components to Bennett’s quick-hitting Box sets. Let’s not forget: one of the most memorable shots in Virginia basketball history came off of a Throwback screen to Ty Jerome — with the Box Side Elevator action for Guy as a decoy.

Box Empty Throwback

From the Miami game in Coral Gables: this Box setup looks similar to how Virginia would launch Box Hammer action; however, on this ATO play, Dunn doesn’t set the weak-side Hammer for Clark. Instead, the action is isolated for McKneely to look for a shot off the Throwback screen from BVP.

Nijel Pack does a nice job with screen navigation and denies the catch-and-shoot, which forces McKneely to put the ball on the deck for a rare off-dribble 2PA.

Box Top Elevator Throwback Double

Here’s another ATO play from a Box set, which includes Elevator doors and Throwback action. McKneely starts the play by zipping up the middle of the lane through top Elevator screening action from BVP and Dunn. Franklin moves across to the opposite block. As McKneely exits the doors and dribbles right, BVP looks ready to set a Throwback screen for Clark on Tyree Appleby. Instead, Clark cuts through and Franklin races up and off the Throwback screen from BVP. Cameron Hildreth does a nice job in chase defense, denying the initial look. From there, Virginia flows into Inside Triangle and, eventually, a late-clock three-pointer from Franklin.

Box Inside Triangle

The Box can also be used to disguise and launch into Inside Triangle action. On this possession, McKneely lifts opposite off BVP’s flare screen and Beekman quickly cuts down off of a brush screen from BVP. After those two screens, BVP pops out and Virginia flows into Inside Triangle. This turns into spread pick-and-pop action between Beekman and BVP.

Justyn Mutts and Sean Pedulla mismanage the switch, Pedulla is late to rotate and BVP (35.3% three-point rate in ACC play) drains another triple.

Box Rip Lob

Here’s another ATO special from Virginia. The ‘Hoos break the huddle in the Box — with the two big guys at the elbows this time and both guards/wings down low.

Beekman initiates the action by dribbling left. McKneely, the low guard on that side moves right as if he’s going to set a cross screen for Clark. Instead, though, Clark clears out, which empties the weak-side corner, and McKneely sets a Rip (back) screen for Shedrick on Jarace Walker.

The pass from Beekman is timed and placed well, plus McKneely does a nice job chipping the burly Walker. Shedrick is the only player on the floor that can go up and get this pass.

Down in Winston-Salem, here’s the same setup. This time, though, McKneely sets the Rip screen on Matthew Marsh to free Gardner up for a lob layup.

Once again, Beekman makes a tough pass look easy. According to CBB Analytics, Beekman has assisted on 18 of Gardner’s field goals this season. Beekman has 14 assists to Shedrick, too. (For those interested, the No. 1 assist-to-scorer combo on the roster this season is Clark to Gardner: 31 dimes.)

However, this isn’t the only Rip lob play Virginia will run out of Box. During the 2021-22 season, Beekman found Shedrick for multiple lobs on this Box play. Here, Franklin lifts up and curls off of Shedrick at the elbow, which is followed by Clark lifting from the opposite block to set the Rip screen (for the screener) on Keve Aluma. The corner is emptied and Beekman lobs to Shedrick for a slam.

Box Rip Corner

Here’s another Virginia ATO Box Rip play, which targets the 5 man at the rim. This one, however, doesn’t feature a lob and includes an entry pass from the corner.

From the matchup with Miami: the possession starts with Franklin curling up and off a pin down from Dunn at the strong-side elbow. McKneely trails Franklin and comes off another screen from Gardner. Instead of clearing all the way through, Franklin curls off Dunn and moves to the opposite elbow to set the Rip (back) screen for Gardner. Jordan Miller is an excellent defender, but he doesn’t see it coming and gets whacked by Franklin’s screen, which results in a Gardner layup.

Virginia’s motion offense jumps a gear when it has two guards/wings that it can utilize as both movement shooters and screeners. Franklin and McKneely provide this type of activity.

During the Houston game, it’s the same Box Rip Corner setup. Walker is a tank, though, and bullies his way through Franklin’s Rip screen for Shedrick. As Houston’s swarming defense doubles the post, Gardner cuts down and Shedrick finds him for a layup.

Don’t Put Beekman In a Box

Virginia will also use its Box set to get Beekman — its top downhill driver — in space. During his three seasons in Charlottesville, Beekman has shown excellent footwork and short-space passing/decision-making while using off-ball screens, specifically within the Blocker Mover offense. The Cavaliers can tap into some of this from the Box, too, though.

Here’s an ATO play at Florida State. Clarks lifts up and out, off Gardner’s screen; Beekman kicks it to him. After the initiation pass to Clark, Beekman cuts down to the baseline and receives a little Exit/Brush screen from Gardner. With FSU playing top side and switching everything, Matthew Cleveland and Caleb Milles switch, with Mills now assigned to Beekman. However, Beekman fades and hangs low, in the short corner; look how much ground Mills must cover to switch out. Beekman uses that space to get downhill and into the paint, which forces help. Franklin drills the kick-out three off the pass from Beekman.

Box Keep/Go

Back in December, during the first FSU game, Virginia emerges from a timeout in Box, with Beekman initiating. Clark spaces and occupies the weak-side corner while Franklin zips up and as if he’ll come off a Throwback from Shedrick. All of this, however, functions as dummy action as Beekman attacks without a pass, driving 1-on-1 vs. Cleveland. With the bigs lifted, Beekman turns the corner and, once again, forces weak-side help, which results in a kick-out to that corner. Clark drives the closeout and scores.

The above possession looks very similar to one of the plays from down the stretch of the early-season win over Illinois.

On this ATO play, Virginia doesn’t emerge in the Box set; it’s a Horns look, with the bigs at the elbows, Franklin already in the weak-side corner and Clark starting in the strong-side corner and then zipping up and out, off of a Throwback screen from Gardner. Once more, this is window dressing as Beekman goes 1-on-1 with Terrance Shannon Jr., a veteran and NBA-ready wing defender, and scores on a nifty up-and-under move.

Special Teams

Finally, Virginia runs a lot of solid sets from its baseline (BLOB) and sideline out-of-bounds (SLOB) sets, which are coordinated by assistant coach Jason Williford. There are too many to run through, but I want to touch on three favorites.

First, here’s a SLOB Box that flows into Keep/Go for Beekman. To start, Beekman comes off of double screens from BVP and Shedrick to receive the entry pass from McKneely. From there, Franklin trails Beekman and runs off the staggers from BVP and Shedrick, which ties up three weak-side UNC defenders. McKneely spaces to the strong-side corner, and now Beekman is able to go 1-on-1, get downhill and score vs. RJ Davis.

Here’s another SLOB set (closer to the corner) for UVA, which starts the same as the above play vs. UNC. It’s a Box set with Beekman coming up staggered screens from Gardner and Shedrick. Instead of running around the double screens, Franklin sprints diagonally through Elevator doors from the two bigs and drains another three.

Lastly, here’s an ATO BLOB Box set play call vs. Michigan — with UVA in its “Big” lineup (only 7 minutes all season with BVP, Gardner and Shedrick on at the same time). It’s a late-game call, which starts with Beekman running screen-the-screener (STS) action: slice screen for Gardner, and then Beekman comes off of a pin from Shedrick. Clark’s inbounds pass is off; Beekman and Shedrick must scramble to save it. This messes some with the timing of the play, but Clark comes off weak-side Elevator screens from BVP and Gardner, which forces Jett Howard to switch out. Howard does an excellent job closing out and sticking with Clark, but the design is still pretty damn clever.